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Harold Sprent Nicholas (1877–1953)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

Harold Sprent Nicholas (1877-1953), judge, was born on 8 January 1877 in Hobart Town, son of William Nicholas, grazier of Bothwell, and his wife Alice Mary, née Sprent. He was educated at The Hutchins School and the University of Tasmania, and in England from 1895 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (B.A., 1899). He was interested in the Oxford Union Society in the decade of F. E. Smith, John Simon, Hilaire Belloc and John Buchan. Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple on 1 May 1901, he practised briefly on the Oxford circuit before returning to Australia. Admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 14 November, Nicholas read with (Sir) Langer Owen. Most of his legal work was done as a consultant and adviser in his Phillip Street chambers, where he acquired a solid reputation in Equity and constitutional law. His court appearances were 'relatively infrequent'; he never took silk. At Walkerville, Adelaide, he married Mabel Woodhead (d.1940) on 13 April 1914.

Until the end of World War I, Nicholas wrote leading articles for the Sydney Morning Herald and for the Daily Telegraph. He published an Australasian edition of Underhill's Trusts and Trustees in 1913 and, with Hubert Harrington, Trustee Acts of New South Wales in 1926. He contributed to periodicals and books and illuminated every subject on which he wrote, whether it was the law of trusts, the monarchy or the theatre, in which he took a lifelong interest. In 1929-34 he was first editor of the Australian Quarterly, and with his friends kept it alive through the Depression.

In 1927-28 Nicholas served as counsel assisting the royal commission on the Constitution, chaired by (Sir) John Peden. Interested in politics, he discussed with (Sir) Thomas Bavin, (Sir) Philip Goldfinch, (Sir) Henry Manning and (Sir) Keith Officer ways of countering J. T. Lang's government. In September 1932 he was nominated to the Legislative Council and, a strong supporter of its reform, was elected to the reconstituted council for three years in December next year. From 1933 he was royal commissioner enquiring into possible boundaries of new States and in his report (1935) identified two areas suitable for self-government, but no action followed.

Resigning from the council on 4 January 1935, Nicholas was appointed to the Supreme Court bench and was chief judge in Equity from 1939. He excelled in analysis of the complicated matters pertaining to the Equity and probate jurisdictions; his work included lunacy. After hearing the Boyd Sinclair case in 1945, he suggested reforms to the law of lunacy affecting persons charged with crimes, which were embodied in the Lunacy (Amendment) Act of 1946.

Retirement from the bench in 1947 allowed Nicholas to devote more time to writing and to his general interests. He had been foundation vice-president (and later president) of the Australian branch of the British Drama League from 1937 and helped to preserve the Independent Theatre in North Sydney for theatrical use. He was also active in the Sydney group of the Round Table and the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In 1948 he published his profound work, The Australian Constitution. Next year he attended the fourth session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's general conference, and acted as leader of the Australian delegation. In late 1951 he chaired a committee established by the Federal government to investigate parliamentary salaries and next year recommended some increases.

'Modest and unassuming in demeanour', he held clear views and high principles. For much of his married life he lived at Rose Bay, and belonged to the Royal Sydney Golf, Australian (Sydney), and Tasmanian clubs. On 9 July 1941 at St John's Church, Toorak, Melbourne, he married his widowed cousin Grace Penwarne Gellibrand, daughter of George Clarence Nicholas of Lachlan Vale, Ouse, Tasmania. He died of coronary vascular disease on 11 June 1953 and was cremated after a service at St James' Church. He was survived by a son and daughter of his first marriage, and by his second wife, who returned to Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Quarterly, 25, no 3, Sept 1953
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Sept 1945, 13 Apr 1946, 12 June 1953
  • British Drama League (Australia), Nicholas memorial fund: the Nicholas memorial book (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Nicholas, Harold Sprent (1877–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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